information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Common scoter (Melanitta nigra)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.
Only coastal and marine records shown



A bulky seaduck with a total body length of 44 to 54 cm. The tail is long and pointed and the bill fairly small. In the male, the entire body plumage, tail and legs are black (the only totally black duck) with a yellow-orange patch on an otherwise black bill. Females are uniformly dark brown with the exception of the side of the head and nape which is a pale dusky brown, with a blackish bill. In late summer, females may display pale, bleached feathers on the back. Juveniles resemble adult females but with a paler light brown belly.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

The only breeding pairs in the UK occur in Scotland. The UK wintering population can be seen around most of the UK coast, with significant populations in Carmarthen and Cardigan Bays, along the Moray Firth and along the Norfolk coast.

Global distribution



Common scoters breed mainly near lakes and rivers in boreal forests and close to tundra waters but also on a few freshwater lakes and blanket bogs in Scotland. Exclusively marine outside of breeding season. These migratory birds are winter visitors to British coasts.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • In males the entire plumage is glossy black.
  • Females are a dark brown with nape and sides of head paler dusky brown.
  • Fairly small bill with yellow-orange patch in males.
  • Long pointed tail.

Additional information

Common scoters feed on sandy seabeds and offshore shallows, and dive to obtain their food. Their diet consists of small fish and invertebrates including sand eels, mussels and sand dwelling bivalves. They have important moulting and wintering localities in the UK, with 25,000-30,000 distributed in inshore waters. Please note that distribution maps are compiled using records for both breeding and wintering populations. For more specific distribution and abundance records please refer to maps compiled by The British Trust for Ornithology, available at

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Further information sources

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    This review can be cited as:

    Sweet, N. A. 2008. Melanitta nigra Common scoter. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 19-09-2018]. Available from:

    Last Updated: 13/10/2008